Count of Flanders, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria, Duke of Brabant, King Albert I of the Belgians, King Leopold III of the Belgians, Mary Lilian Baels, Prince Philippe of Belgium, Princess Astrid of Sweden, Princess of Réthy, World War I
Leopold III (November 3, 1901 – September 25, 1983) was King of the Belgians from 1934 until 1951.
Prince Leopold was born in Brussels, the first child of Prince Albert, Duke of Brabant, heir to the Belgian throne, and his consort, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria. Prince Leopold was born during the lifetime of his grandfather, Prince Philippe of Belgium, Count of Flanders (March 13, 1837 – November 17, 1905) the third born and second surviving son of Leopold I, King of the Belgians and his wife Louise d’Orléans (1812–1850).
At the time of Prince Leopold’s birth his great uncle, King Leopold II (April 9, 1835 – December 17, 1909) was King of the Belgians from 1865 to 1909 and, through his own efforts, the King-Sovereign of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908.
King Leopold II was the second King of the Belgians as well as the second but eldest surviving son of King Leopold I and Louise of Orléans. Leopold II succeeded his father on the Belgian throne in 1865 and reigned for 44 years until his death—the longest reign of any Belgian monarch.
Prince Leopold’s mother, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria was the daughter of Prince Charles-Theodor, Duke in Bavaria, head of a cadet branch of the Wittelsbach Bavarian royal family, and an ophthalmologist. Duchess Elisabeth was named after her father’s sister, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Sisi, wife of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, Empress Zita, the last Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, and Felix of Bourbon-Parma, husband of Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg and brother of Empress Zita, were among Elisabeth’s first cousins.
In 1909 Prince Leopold’s father became King Albert I of the Belgians, and Prince Leopold became Duke of Brabant.
In August 1914, when Belgium was invaded by Germany, King Albert allowed Leopold, then aged twelve, to enlist in the Belgian Army as a private and fight in defence of the kingdom. However, in 1915, with Belgium almost entirely occupied by the Germans, Leopold was sent to join Eton College, while his father fought on in France. After World War I, in 1919, the Duke of Brabant visited the Old Mission and Saint Anthony Seminary in Santa Barbara, California.
On November 4, 1926 (the day after his 25th birthday) Prince Leopold married Princess Astrid of Sweden in a civil ceremony in Stockholm , followed by a religious ceremony in Brussels on 10 November.
Princess Astrid of Sweden was the third child and youngest daughter of Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland, and his wife, Princess Ingeborg of Denmark. Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland was the third son of King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, by his wife, Sophia of Nassau. Princess Ingeborg of Denmark was a daughter of King Frederik VIII of Denmark by his wife, Louise of Sweden. Astrid’s father was a younger brother of King Gustaf V of Sweden; her mother was the younger sister of kings Christian X of Denmark and Haakon VII of Norway.
King Albert I of the Belgians died in a mountaineering accident in eastern Belgium on February 17, 1934, at the age of 58, and he was succeeded by his son as King Leopold III of the Belgians. King Albert I is popularly referred to as the “Knight King” (roi-chevalier or koning-ridder) or “Soldier King” (roi-soldat or koning-soldaat) in Belgium in reference to his role during World War I.
On August 29, 1935, while the King Leopold III and Queen Astrid were driving along the winding, narrow roads near their villa at Küssnacht am Rigi, Schwyz, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Lucerne, Leopold lost control of the car which plunged into the lake, killing Queen Astrid.
On September 11, 1941 King Leopold III married Lilian Baels in a secret, religious ceremony, with no validity under Belgian law. They originally intended to wait until the end of the war for the civil marriage, but as the new Princess of Réthy was soon expecting their first child, the ceremony took place on December 6, 1941. The marriage is considered Morganatic.
Mary Lilian Baels was born in Highbury, London, England, where her parents had fled during World War I. She was one of the nine children of Henri Baels from Ostend and his wife, Anne Marie de Visscher, a member of the Belgian nobility from Dentergem. Lilian was called “Lily” in her family circle.